The Gulf War
A turning point in how the George H. W. Bush administration viewed the international order
On August 2, 1990, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein sent 140,000 Iraqi troops and 18,000 tanks into Kuwait.
Hussein had asked Kuwait to forgive or refinance Iraq’s wartime debts from the almost-eight-year Iran-Iraq War, which had ended in 1988. But Kuwait refused to forgive any of the $8 to $10 billion in loans. And it opposed Iraq’s plea to increase export oil allotment, as regulated by OPEC.
Indeed, oil was driving force behind the invasion and would lead to U.S. military involvement. “The fundamental U.S. interest in the security of the Persian Gulf is oil,” Paul Wolfowitz, under secretary of defense for policy in the George H. W. Bush administration, told Defense Secretary Dick Cheney. The administration estimated that after invading Kuwait, Hussein was in control of 20 percent of the world’s oil reserves.
Bush met with the National Security Council that same day to discuss a U.S. response to Hussein’s invasion. On his way to Colorado for a meeting at the Aspen Institute, he began to engage in his trademark “telephone diplomacy,” building a coalition of world leaders against Hussein’s actions.
A few hours later, he held a joint press conference in Aspen with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Watch the press conference:
That same day, the UN Security Council passed UN Resolution 660 condemning the invasion, calling for immediate withdrawal and announcing sanctions if Hussein didn't comply.
By August 5, Bush announced to the press that “this will not stand, this aggression of Kuwait,” and Saudi Arabia gave consent to station U.S. troops on Saudi soil.
Three days later, President Bush addressed the nation: “In the life of a nation we’re called upon to define who we are and what we believe.… At my direction, elements of the 82nd Airborne Division as well as key units of the U.S. Air Force are arriving today to take up defensive positions in Saudi Arabia.”
On August 20, Bush signed National Security Directive 45, stating that the United States had a vital interest in the Persian Gulf and would defend its national security interests.
At the Helsinki Summit on September 9, Bush met with Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev, and together they issued a joint statement for Hussein to unconditionally withdraw from Kuwait.
“It is Iraq against the world,” Bush said during an address before a joint session of congress on the now-meaningful date of September 11. He demanded that Iraq pull out of Kuwait immediately. Click below to watch the full address:
On October 30, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff presented war plans to President Bush. The next day, he approved the doubling of forces, but didn’t announce the increase until after the midterm elections on November 6.
At this point, the world was in agreement. The United Nations passed a resolution on November 29 that agreed to support the use of “all necessary means” to remove Saddam from Kuwait if he did not withdraw his forces by January 15, 1991.
Bush convened a meeting of his advisors in the new year to strategize on obtaining congressional authorization for the use of force. Defense Secretary Cheney argued strongly against the plan, and the meeting ended lacking a firm decision. A few days later, the president met again with advisors and then sent a letter to congress requesting authorization.
Congress voted to approve House Joint Resolution 77 on January 12, 1991: the Authorization for Use of Military Force against Iraq. Three days later, Bush signed the National Security Directive 54, which laid out the administration’s war aims.
Operation Desert Storm began with aerial bombing on January 17. And 12 days later, President Bush gave his State of the Union, using his bully pulpit to acknowledge the "great struggle in the skies and on the seas and sands." Click below to watch the full address:
Not long afterward, on February 24, 1991, the land campaign began, only to end approximately 100 hours later—a decision that remains controversial, since it was an opportunity to topple Hussein and destroy his army, many years prior to Bush’s son, President George W. Bush, achieving the goal in 2003.
At this juncture, President Bush once again appealed to the American people, speaking to them from the Oval Office. "Kuwait is once more in the hands of Kuwaitis, in control of their own destiny," he said. Click below to watch the full address:
On February 28, a cease fire was declared, after 148 U.S. citizens were killed (another 235 killed by accidents and friendly fire), 458 were wounded, and 92 coalition soldiers were killed.
Six days later, Bush once again appeared before congress to mark the end of the war. Click below to watch the full address:
The Gulf War was a turning point in how the George H. W. Bush administration viewed the United States in the "international order." Dealing with the conflict, experts relied on two lessons from Vietnam and one from World War II, respectively: (1) overwhelming force, (2) the virtues of speed and international support, and (3) that dictators will never be satisfied.
The U.S. military constricted press coverage of the war, and central command dictated what film footage the press received.
President Bush had never intended to overthrow Hussein or remove him from power. “It is important to note that nowhere in his public statements…did George Bush (or the United Nations) ever call for the overthrow of Saddam from his position of power in Iraq,” wrote author John Greene in The Presidency of George Bush. Such an action would have overstepped the U.N. resolution and could have turned Arab countries against the United States.